Around six million over 65s in England are at risk from asthma attacks and lung damage due to toxic air - charities reveal

 

  • New report reveals that over half (59%) of people in England aged 65 and over are living in areas where harmful particulate matter pollution (PM2.5) is dangerously high and could be damaging their lungs  

  • Over a quarter (26%) of care homes in England and nearly 3,000 medical centres (hospitals and GPs) are in areas where PM2.5 exceeds World Health Organization recommended levels 

  • Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation are calling for the government to urgently publish a national health protection plan to safeguard those most at-risk from toxic air  

Around six million people aged 65 and over in England, particularly those with lung conditions, are at increased risk of breathing difficulties and having asthma attacks or COPD flare-ups due to living in heavily polluted areas, according to new figures revealed today by the UK’s leading respiratory charities.1 

In a new report, The invisible threat: how we can protect people from air pollution and create a fairer, healthier society, Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation have revealed that 59% of older people are living in areas where fine particulate matter (PM2.5), the most worrying type of pollution that can penetrate deep into the lungs, is above the levels recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). 2 

Worryingly, older people are being exposed to high levels of air pollution in places where they should feel safe, including:  

  • Over quarter of care homes in England (26%) 3 

  • Nearly 3,000 medical centres in England (37% of all GPs and 29% of hospitals) 4 

While there are no safe levels of the toxic pollutant PM2.5, the WHO recommends that concentrations should not exceed 10 μg/m3. The current legal limit for PM2.5 in the UK is 20 μg/m3, twice the limit recommended by international health experts. 

Air pollution is dangerous for everyone but for the most vulnerable people in society, including older people who are more likely to suffer from lung disease or have weakened lungs from ageing, spikes in air pollution levels can put them at risk of breathing difficulties and having asthma attacks or COPD flare-ups. 

Exposure to air pollution increases the chance of a person dying early, developing lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. Emerging research has even shown links with air pollution and cognitive decline, including dementia.5 

The research, which used PM2.5 data collected in 2019, shockingly revealed that in 36 local authorities every care home is located in areas with levels of pollution over what the WHO recommended guidelines, including in Epping Forrest, Luton, Thurrock, Reading, Slough, Spelthorne, Broxbourne, Dartford and Watford 

In total there are 4,382 care homes, that provide critical care and support to older people, located in highly polluted areas across England.  

There are pollution black spots across the country affecting 98% of care homes in London, 97% in Epsom and Ewell, 95% in Oxford, 83% in Sandwell, 76% in Northampton, 63.5% in Swindon, 47% in Coventry, 40% in City of Bristol, 37% in Birmingham, 36% in Leicester, 33% in South Gloucestershire and 15% in Liverpool. 

Catherine Bazell, 76, is from north London and has asthma and bronchiectasis, a long-term lung condition that causes coughing and breathlessness. Six years ago, pollution got so bad that it exacerbated her breathing conditions and she later suffered two minor strokes. She said: 

“I’ve lived in London all my life and I think growing up in such a polluted, smoky city is why I developed asthma. While there’s no longer the coal-burning smog from when I was a child, the pollution from all the cars, buses and lorries really affects my lung conditions. When I go for a walk where I live, it can feel like I can’t get a deep enough breath and that I’m struggling for oxygen. 

“On a hot day six years ago, I was rushed to hospital after having palpitations and being very short of breath. In hospital, I suffered two minor strokes. I’m sure the high pollution played a part in my illness and I was anxious afterwards about the same thing happening to me again.” 

Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation are urging the government to produce a national health protection plan for England overseen by a newly created air quality minister to safeguard those most at-risk from the effects of toxic air. This plan should include training for health professionals and an alert system that tells the general public when air pollution is going to be high, which directly informs care homes and medical centres so that those most at risk can protect themselves from harm.  

The charities are also calling for the government to set out stronger clean air laws that set out targets in line with WHO guidelines and commitments to meet these by 2030 at the latest. 

Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, who have nurses that provide life-saving health advice for people with lung-conditions, have also launched an online map where people can see how many care homes, medical centres and schools are located in highly polluted areas where they live.  

Sarah Woolnough, Chief Executive of Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said:  

“It is unacceptable that millions of over-65s, who are more likely to suffer from lung disease, are being exposed to toxic levels of air pollution in places where they are supposed to feel safe.   

“As we get older, we rely more on health and social care services but we can’t move all the care homes, hospitals and GP surgeries to areas with better air quality. The government must produce a national health protection plan to safeguard people from the invisible threat of air pollution and set out stronger air quality laws in line with WHO guidelines. 

Our parents and grandparents have sacrificed so much during the Covid-19 crisis, they surely deserve to have clean air to breathe.”   

Professor Sir Stephen Holgate, Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation medical adviser and Medical Research Council clinical professor of immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton, said:  

“We’ve known about the deadly harm air pollution can cause for decades, it’s time now for urgent action. 

“Dirty air impacts us from when we are conceived until old age. In children, it can stunt lung growth, in older people, there’s evidence linking it to lung damage, cancer, cardiovascular disease and it can leave people with a lung condition struggling for breath and put them at risk of life-threatening asthma attacks or COPD flare-ups. 

“Last year, I gave expert testimony at the inquest of nine-year-old school girl Ella Kissi-Debrah, in which the coroner concluded that air pollution had contributed to her death from asthma. We must honour Ella’s legacy by acting now and protecting other vulnerable people from the harmful effects of toxic air.”  

Notes to Editors:  

For more information or for interview requests, please contact the press team on 0207 786 4949 or mediaoffice@auk-blf.org.uk. 

References: 

  1. Percentage of English older people living in a polluted area – ONS Population estimates mid-2019 were mapped against local authorities that had levels of PM2.5 breaching WHO recommendations. Resulting in 6,092,614 over 65s in England, which equates to 59% of total over 65s in England (10,353,716). 

  1. Number of English older people living in a polluted area - ONS Population estimates mid-2019 were mapped against local authorities that had levels of PM2.5 breaching WHO recommendations, based on the dataset commissioned from CERC in reference 3. 

  1. Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation commissioned Cambridge Environmental Research Consultants (CERC) to look at how many schools, colleges, hospitals, GP surgeries and care homes are in areas above the WHO’s guidelines levels for PM2.5. This analysis used existing modelled PM2.5 data published by the UK Government as part of their responsibilities under the Environment Act 1995. CERC used predicted annual average PM2.5 data for 2019. In England, 4,382 out of the total of 16,651 care homes were located in areas above WHO’s guidelines levels for PM2.5 

  1. In England, 2,644 out of a total of 7,149 GP surgeries and 317 out of a total of 1,083 medical centres were located in areas above WHO’s guidelines levels for PM2.5,  

  1. The invisible threat: how we can protect people from air pollution and create a fairer, healthier society